In February I was fortunate enough to get invited by Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group with the permission of Lord Mann on a reconnaissance mission for a project they are doing on studying standing buildings on the site of Thorpe Abbotts airfield; A Second World War RAF base which was handed over to the US Eight Air Force in 1942 becoming a heavy bomber base. It sits on the Diss Harleston Road just inside Norfolk in the border lands. It is a vast piece of land housing fifty aircraft hard-standings and two hangers, a hospital and accommodation areas for four squadrons of the 100 Bomb Group flying B17 Flying fortresses out across Europe in the second half of the war. With a ground crew of twenty six and a flying crew of either nine or ten per aircraft, we can estimate that crew alone on the base would have numbered around 1,800, plus staff and administration, hospital, fire crews, maintenance and so on you are looking at a small town suddenly appearing in the landscape.
Thorpe Abbotts is still there, or a large percentage of it is, including standing buildings, there is a liminal nature to these places, some things are obvious other things you stumble across, and even with a plan of the site we found it quite difficult to work out where certain things have gone or where they should be. The obvious remnants are the control tower, which is accessible and houses a museum, parts of the runway and elements of the perimeter track intact or hidden in the road plan of the area. The standing buildings include some of the more sturdy accommodation and administrations areas, the water towers and a pumping plant. The T2 Hangers have vanished and a lot of the Nissen huts are collapsing into whale skeletons of rusty corrugated iron and peeling tar paper skin, home comforts opened up to the elements for nearly 70 years slowly vanishing in the rain.
Despite the degradation of the standing elements in these places the connections are still here; a standing wall with once bright painted stripes, now dulled by time, a washroom with faded blue paint with later graffiti scratched into the plasterboard, Dawn and Hazel were here in 1957, sneakily smoking or waiting for boyfriends in the quiet countryside, cigarette butts and empty cans attest to the attraction of this private dilapidation to the younger nocturnal population. There’s burner marks on the walls of one block which could be a cook area, a traced shape on another wall looks like it once housed a squadron logo of some sort. concrete troughs on floors show the position of wood burners the men and women would have huddled round in their thin skinned temporary homes fighting off the cold and wet outside waited to fly, played cards, read books and eaten food. And I our now the windows have all gone; metal frames hang open, in one case open for so long a tree has grown up so it will never close. The floors are covered in shattered concrete, old feed and the detritus of modern farming. On the perimeter of a field edge a gun emplacement tips and powders away, an old medicine bottle discarded nearby sticks out of the plough shattered flint in the soil.
The lower site is covered in heavy brick built blast shelters, we gave up counting these ten-a-penny lifesavers all gradually sinking into the moss and leaf mould split not by bombs but by the slow weave of tree roots and expanding trunks pulling them apart, ice and heat fractures chipping away the edges of the bricks, reducing the built back to component parts. Soft edged drainage ditches curve off into the trees encircling the ghosts of more huts, you can trace the walls as ridges in the soil, see patches of concrete de-laminating, the vestiges sticking through the leaves, spot elements of drainage. The lower admin area sits on the edge of a once metalled drive, now covered in several inches and plenty of years of woodland fallings, the huts with strange wooden wings are overgrown, piping and wiring sticks out here and there, and old brick built cooker still in place, bits of paint peel off everything in the damp. The round hood of a 1950s car rests nearby, grown over by thorn bushes slowly rusting into a metal signature in the ground.
The Water pumping station is remarkably intact, still containing the imprint of wiring and fuse boards, parts of the towers re-purposed into storage for feed and fitted with owl roosts. Over towards the medical area the hospital has gone replaced by pheasant feeders in the woodland, established trees grow in what was once a clearing, there’s no visible evidence except a toilet block leaning heavily into it’s eventual collapse, a few remnants of cracked urinals and sinks still cling to the brickwork all oddly out of kilter with the natural woodland around it. We drove slowly along part of the perimeter past the now non-existent bomb dump and shooting butts off in the woods, stopping to stare through the descending gloom at the runway’s vanishing point.
These places are fascinating; something so huge, not just in physical size but in human significance and numbers; where so many people lived and took part in a particular series of events that shaped modern Europe and the world can visually almost cease to exist so quickly if ignored, nature and human occupation removing the past.